September 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
“The goal of human existence is that man should dwell at peace in all his relationships: with God, with himself, with his fellows, with nature, a peace which is not merely the absence of hostility, though certainly it is that, but a peace which at its highest is enjoyment.”
Nicholas Wolterstorff, REASON [within the Bounds of Religion]
If you haven’t seen the moving video entitled, Made in New York, produced recently by Gatorade honoring Derek Jeter, the retiring New York Yankee shortstop, then sit back and enjoy – it is a worthy watch.
If anything has distinguished Jeter’s career it is that he is a team player. While he is unquestionably an exceptional athlete, it is his commitment to the wellbeing of the team that separates him and others like him.
Hey, I’m no Yankees fan! But those who play for the team – those who care primarily for people other than themselves, they are the ones that transcend the lines of demarcation that normally separate people. I think this is because they tap into what we were created to enjoy with one another, and all creation, before the fall cursed the world with isolation. They embody the selfless expression that community demands in order for it to flourish. In a year filled with painful sports scandals, both on the professional and collegiate athletic levels, it is refreshing to say farewell to a pro that ‘got it.’
This is partly why I believe the Baltimore Orioles’ season has been special (other than winning the AL East Division Title!). They have survived disappointment and injury – as a team. Last Tuesday evening in Camden Yards (picture below) was magic, because team and city converged in joy. It is always about the team, and the people/city the team plays for.
I often don’t get this. In a culture and society that is so individualized, it is easy to get lost in doing my job: preparing my sermon, writing my blog, paying my bills, fixing my house, etc, that I forget the grander, sweeter communal life of love, friendship, fellowship and faith I have been called into.
We weren’t created to live for ourselves. And we are miserable when we do. In spite of the fact that our selfish instincts often prevail against the messy, inconvenience of relationship and sacrifice and self-abandonment, it is when our darkest wishes come true, and everything is in its perfect order just as we wanted it, and we are left to ourselves, that we are at our most miserable.
So God gives us simple expressions of self-abandonment in order that we may catch fresh glimpses of Jesus, who exchanged glory for shame, and honor for love, that we may rediscover that the Father’s great delight is most beautifully enjoyed when shared together… with the team.
What good news…
August 30, 2014 § 5 Comments
Robert E. Webber, the Divine Embrace
Two weeks ago I posted on Robin Williams’ death with the hope of honoring the impact he has had in the life of my family, and our world. Additionally, I relayed that he had confessed the Faith, to express that regardless of what drove Williams to suicide, it could not negate the gospel’s power if he belonged to Jesus, fully expecting that some in the believing community would take issue with this (which proved to be true). But I stand by this.
What I didn’t expect was the backlash on the more incidental statements I made on suicide (that they are selfish and cowardly). I say, ‘incidental,’ and am admonished by treating any words lightly.
So let me begin by saying that I greatly appreciate the response! What a rich and rewarding conversation.
Unfortunately, as a pastor, I have always been on the survivors’ end of things – walking beside people in the aftermath of suicide, as they process their last conversations, their last arguments, and their own feelings of guilt, anger, devastation and sorrow. From the survivors’ perspective it always looks selfish, even cowardly.
But what I have learned is that for those who suffer from depression, it all looks the opposite. To the seriously depressed it seems the only unselfish thing left to do.
Here is what a new friend sent my way:
Until recently, I have hidden my struggle with depression. I felt ashamed, weak, lazy, selfish, sinful, and stupid for something I never knew is actually a disease. The chemicals and neurotransmitters in my brain that help stabilize moods don’t work as well as they should. It isn’t that much different from someone whose pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin… The words you chose to use in your blog, cowardice and selfishness, are condemning enough to shame me and lots of others into hiding again.
A long time friend offered this:
Yes, suicide is selfish for those left behind, in that the one considering it is only concerned about relieving his own pain. I would contend, however that with such tremendous pain, he is not choosing to put himself above all others, but rather is unable to see past himself.
Last year the New York Times published an article on suicide, noting that more people die from it annually than in auto accidents. I remember a Youth Workers Convention seminar Katherine and I attended in 1984 that reminded us that every attempt is serious, and will usually be followed up with another.
So to those I was insensitive to, please accept my sincere and heartfelt apologies.
I have a lot to learn. I guess we all do.
I’ll never forget a sermon by the great theologian and pastor, Sinclair Ferguson, who said that he believed that Jesus, in experiencing every human emotion, even battled mental illness in the Garden of Gethsemane.
All this to say that regardless of what we do and don’t understand about the workings of the human condition, fortunately, until He makes everything new, in Jesus we have a Redeemer who sympathizes with and fully grasps whatever darkness we live with – even if no one else can.
And that is very good news, friends…
Postscript: In his LAWeekly blog, Henry Rollins, a former Punk Rocker out of DC, recently wrote on suicide (in response to Williams’ death), and experienced a similar backlash that I did. His articles don’t come from a Christian perspective, and the language is rough, but I appreciate what he offers.
August 16, 2014 § 38 Comments
“Robin Williams attended City Church in fall of 2006 when I was preaching through the Apostle’s Creed. He confessed the faith of the church and shuffled up for communion with everybody else needing grace. He was always kind to those around him. I know from other friends of his in the Bay Area what a generous, humble, and charitable man he was and his death saddens me greatly today. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”
Fred Harrell, Sr. Pastor, City Church San Francisco
Robin Williams’ death has rocked me. Yes, I’m a Christ-follower and minister, and in God’s story, no one person is greater or better than the next. He was addicted to alcohol – I know this too. And I already know that suicide is not only an act of desperation, but also one of selfishness.
All this is true, and more. But for some reason, in the brilliant offerings and characters of this extraordinary comic and actor, it is as though Williams’ sorrows somehow connected with my own. Whether a magnificent iconoclastic English teacher, a distant Dad reminded of love and joy and family, a son who longed for the courage to face his own terrors – and father, or a caring Therapist, Williams drew me in like few have.
Through great writing, roles and directing – but also in his own pathos – Williams tapped into something deep within. When his heart broke over the suicide of one of his students in Dead Poets Society, it was real. When he finally refused to run from the hunter who chased him for years, in Jumanji, it was as though all of us finally grew up and stopped running. In Hook, when he told Jack, his son, that he was his ‘happy thought,’ my heart swelled for our own children.
I think it was more than acting, but a man who wanted to believe there is hope past one’s own sorrows and demons. I am sad for him and all who wrestle with the darkness of such depression that wrecks that hope.
Fortunately, as selfish, damaging or cowardly as it may be, for those who belong to Jesus, suicide holds no power over the gospel. It is a sin, but it isn’t unforgiveable, any more than my own cowardice, selfish ways and damaging actions. We believe that nothing can separate us from God’s love – not even us (Romans 8).
I am sure that when I was fresh out of seminary, and filled with self-righteous zeal, that I would have written some pietistic essay on why Williams could not have possibly entered the Kingdom, but I would have been wrong.
Instead, I am comforted by the words of his pastor, and my friend.
And though I didn’t know Robin Williams, I will miss him.
But better, and in spite of his flaws – and mine – I hope to one day see him – and you – at the Feast.
Wouldn’t that be sweet.
What good news…
July 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
“…I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith… And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.”
Marlilynne Robinson, Gilead
There is an ice-cream shop at the beach we visit each year that smells heavenly as one walks by. It emits a delicious aroma that undoubtedly draws many in. However, this year on one occasion, I turned the corner the shop is on, only to be hit with the foulest of smells. On the ground, puddling along the building was the nasty water that obviously drains from the shop – the county fair puddle kind of smell that one can barely endure in between nausea-inducing rides.
Reflecting on that odorous moment, I am reminded that we can be like that little shop. We have a beautiful side that we want everyone to notice and embrace. But we also have another side.
Dare I say, a stinky side…
All kinds of experiences, flaws and encounters contribute, and unfortunately our tendency is to not only hide this side, but to live, act and relate as though it doesn’t even exist.
Which is ludicrous.
I have found that the relationships that we hold most dear are those in which we have entrusted some glimpse into our ugliness. In fact, the reality of our flaws and blemishes is the only point of commonality we share.
Other than Jesus.
In other words, our stinky side, and the One who has delivered us from its lasting effects, are what unite us. They are what inform our spirits that we are not alone.
That we don’t have to hide.
That we are safe.
You would think this to be a no-brainer, yet the instinct to self-defend is powerful, and every chink in my armor serve as temptations to protect, pretend and hide, when all along the gospel screams that they are God’s invitations for me to enjoy the dance of intimacy with a world that shares my brokenness.
And hiding only diminishes me.
So back to the Ocean. It is not merely the surface and horizon, but the depths, and perilous realities, the mysteries and dangers, that make it magnificent. The depths shape its lovely colors. The creatures fill it with beautiful diversity. Its mysteries draw us into the wonder of God.
It can’t be what it is, without all that it is.
And neither can we.
But the Father already knows this. And by His grace, in Jesus He has embraced that most ugly, stinky part of us, in forming us into something lovely, flaws and all, until He comes and makes everything new.
Friends, this is our good news…
July 19, 2014 § 3 Comments
“The ocean is a desert with its life underground and a perfect disguise above…”
America, A Horse with no Name
Nothing restores me like the ocean. The expanse of the waters, the sound of the waves, the warmth of the sun, the surf, the birds, the clouds, the ocean spray, the smell of the water, an occasional breach of the waters by dolphins, and just being there with Katherine – all do something good for my soul.
It is all so beautiful. You can stand in the same place every morning and get a completely different, and equally spectacular view.
But the sea is as treacherous as it is beautiful, filled with immeasurable depths, unlivable pressure levels, treacherous currents, pitch black darkness and terrifying creatures (especially sharks!). It separates people and countries, and throughout history it has swallowed ships and souls whole.
And it is in its beauty and terror that this magnificent expanse symbolizes God’s unfathomable mercy. The prophet Micah writes that God will one day ‘cast all our sins into the depths of the sea’ (Micah 7:19). He is using prophetic imagery to describe the extent to which God freely forgives.
But why the ocean? Why something so beautiful?
Why not hurl our sins into the depths of a chemical waste pit… or bury them at the bottom of a landfill? Why cast the ugliest of who we are into the loveliest of what God has created?
The answer is, because this is what God does. And this is what He has done – in Jesus.
We rebel and our sin is hideous. Yet in exchange, the Father gives us Jesus – not His creation, but His Son – the best of who He is, to take on the worst that we are.
In Jesus the Father has created for Himself a spectacular view that He delights in every day, in the way one would delight in the ocean as the sun rises and sparkles on the water, and as the gulls make their way across the canvas, and the waves gently invite us to drink in the beauty.
Don’t let the imagery be lost on you – it is far too wonderful. It isn’t that God blinds Himself of our brokenness, but that in Christ, our sin has been covered, engulfed as it were, under the deep waters of the Father’s compassion and the Son’s blood.
His Spirit testifies to ours that we are not only His children, but that we are the very thing He delights in, every day.
What good news…
June 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel
Last week Katherine and I were surprised to find a visitor on the edge of our patio – a rabbit was feasting on some weeds that grew in the mulch.
Apparently there is no strategy for preventing these unwelcome growths that find their way onto our small property – they just come. The flowers, trees and mulched areas may be impeccably cared for, but one weed, strategically sprouted, can make it all look trashy. So I’m constantly on the lookout.
But because of our new friend, we decided to give clemency to this small growth. Besides, it would provide a diversion from the flowers and plants at the front of our home. I suspect our visitor instinctively knows what I’ll do if it hurts those flowers (see below)…
Truth be told, I easily get consumed with the weeds in my own life, whether past mistakes or present struggles. That subtle but insidious perfectionism is always there, and it is a sick breeding ground for my soul.
At times the Church hasn’t helped. We have heard phrases like, ‘the overcoming life,’ and have been made to constantly feel spiritually inadequate, though the gospel teaches that it is God’s love that cannot be overcome.
In his fine book, Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli writes, “…the truth is, we are a mess. None of us is who we appear to be. We all have secrets. We all have issues. We all struggle from time to time. No one is perfect. Not one…”
Interestingly, Paul taught that ingratitude was a vital component in the fall (Romans 1:21), and that for the Christ-follower, a sure cure for a self-consumed heart, is a thankful heart (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
I have to believe this to be part of the reason God allows weeds we can’t eradicate, because ultimately an obsession with perfection, when unmasked, is no less than an ungrateful rejection of one’s need for Christ’s sacrifice. The fact is that there are some weeds that need to remain. They’re ugly, and they won’t follow us into heaven. But amazingly, the flaws and struggles we carry have their own value that only God can determine.
Paul concluded that he would, “…boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
The question is this: Will we trust the Father with our own imperfect selves and stories as they play out?
If your answer is that you want to but that you can’t, then you’re starting to get it.
And this, friends, is good news…
May 3, 2014 § 2 Comments
Craig G. Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell
Each Saturday morning I spend a few hours in the Starbucks at our local mall. If you have followed this blog for any time then you know that I refer to it as ‘my Starbucks.’ It is an affectionate term for a ‘place’ that has become part of my own weekly rhythm, replete with familiar faces. There is the manager who only ever wears short pants, even on winter’s coldest days. He hid patrons and staff in the back room when gunshots rang throughout the mall earlier this year. An older English gentleman who teaches yoga in apartment communities is a regular, and sings along whenever old Rock & Roll plays. The other day he stumped me on a Donovan song (though he wasn’t entirely certain it was Donovan). There is an environmental engineer who is on a personal search for life and faith. We talk weekly, and can finally remember each other’s names. And then there is the young cop, a Member of our church, whose beat includes the Mall. He often meets with other officers at my Starbucks, and when he does, we embrace and catch up on his wife and little children.
Having spent our early years in Youth Ministry, Katherine and I learned that it was important to look out for young people who seemed ‘out of place.’ They were lonely and didn’t quite fit into the categories their fellow students had established for that ‘community.’ Forcing acceptance was the worst thing we could do for either party because finding one’s ‘place’ is more about coming to terms with who we are before Christ. That isn’t an easy thing to teach young people, much less to embrace for ourselves.
Jesus’ promise to be with us ‘always’ (Matthew 28:20) is more than a kind parting sentiment. It is the radical promise that ‘place’ was never intended to be a moving target dictated by social status, personal wealth or religious savvy, but in a relational reality that transcends time, space and circumstance. Because of Jesus, every location in which we find ourselves, whether a coffee shop, a sanctuary, a brewery, a prison or a home – is sacred… because He is there.
Jesus is our Place, and this means that regardless of where our journey takes us, we belong…
What good, sweet news.
February 8, 2014 § 3 Comments
It took an extra half-hour to get into the office early yesterday morning, due to a car that caught fire within 100 yards of the church driveway entrance. Being the upstanding Christian witness that I am, with hopes that I could squeeze through the roadblock, I gently reminded the police officer that I am a pastor, to no avail (that usually works).
How many times have I had what I assumed to be the goal in site, only to be diverted by some incident, some unforeseen distraction, a phone call, an illness – you name it. And while being delayed in my arrival to the office is a small thing, the truth is that I don’t like not knowing what God is doing with my life (which is always). Especially when it plays out in ways that bring struggle, doubt and sadness.
If only I could be in control…
The adventure of the gospel is that our plans aren’t necessarily God’s design for our lives. And the truth is that if ours played out as we dreamed them, our stories would end in utter madness and disarray. We live in the realm of sterile assumptions. Our plans are based on incomplete data. We see through a ‘glass darkly.’ And we have no stomach for diversions, pain and many of the other dynamics that often accompany what turn out to be deep experiences of joy.
It isn’t so much that my plans are great, but that I don’t want to entrust my life into someone else’s hands, and maybe deeper, that I don’t want to accept the reality that there is pain in the world – in my world. But the bottom line is that God wants surrender from us – complete and total surrender. And whether we offer it to Him or not, His will will be done. So what I find is that the extent of my joy and peace rides on the level of control I am willing to lay at His feet.
Do I believe in a Sovereign God who is unequaled in His desire for my well-being?
Somewhere in the journey I want to be able to get out of the way and simply hear the Father say, ‘Here is the way, walk in it’ (Isaiah 30:21) and then actually be fine with what I know that I don’t know.
And I can’t help but think that this dynamic accompanied Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, as He wept in anguish to the Father, filled with sorrow, yet with a ‘joy set before Him’ (Hebrews 12:1-2). In spite of His disciples’ objections, the Cross was no diversion – He knew it was our path to joy.
What good news…
December 28, 2013 § 20 Comments
“All I ever wanted was to have a wonderful husband and children and take care of them. I had all that and God saved my soul, so I have Heaven thrown in, as well! Remember, I will be in Heaven praising the Lord. What a wonderful life I have had!” – Mom, June 1, 2012
This past Thursday, the day after Christmas, my Mom, Marie Khandjian, passed away. I am speaking in the most personal of terms – the ‘she’s-my-mom’ kind of terms. Until your parents are gone you always feel the same, like the child one has been, throughout their entire lives to that point. Even as an adult, when you visit the house you grew up in, nothing feels different. There is your room, your den, your kitchen, etc. It’s all there as it had always been. But then, when they go, it is different. And now it is different. My Mom is gone. On her behalf we are relieved that she is Home and reunited to Dad, but it is different.
My Mom was an amazing woman. She loved life. She loved her family. And she loved Christ and His Church. Her story is of someone who started out with tons of pain and sadness, but ended in healing and joy. Somewhere in her adolescence, at a critical moment when she could easily have spiraled into a life of constant sorrow and trouble, she met Jesus, and her life was miraculously and radically transformed.
She had an incredibly positive outlook. One year, after I was dumped by a girl in college, she sent me the single (yes, a vinyl 45 rpm record!), I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor. She was right. I did.
She wasn’t afraid of setbacks, nor impressed with greatness. She had no fear of confrontation, conflict or disagreement. Even if it was with a pastor that might also happen to be her son…
She was relentlessly committed to her family. Out of her painful childhood experiences she resolved to cook hot meals for her family every night – and did. She not only raised us, but loved us, spoke truth into our lives, forgave us much, taught us about Jesus, and blessed us by adoring our Dad, her husband, out loud.
She was tirelessly social – Being Armenian, she loved throwing parties – big parties to the tune of 50-100 people at a time. Armenian Pilaf, salad and veggies, along with London broil that Dad would grill, and of course, Baklava, were the staples. Family would gather. Women would cook and catch up. Men would play backgammon and talk loud. Children would run inside and out. Classmates, church members and neighbors (invited or not) were welcome and constantly stopped in for that famous food and energy.
All to say that my Mom gave to us what she didn’t receive in her hard upbringing, which makes her all the more amazing. God gave her a vision for something better and sweeter and lovelier than the hard life she was born into. He gave her what she most longed for, even when she didn’t have it or quite know what it would look like. And through her and Dad, He gave us Himself.
And now, everything she wanted for us, she has – She is Home, at the Feast, with her beloved husband, with the gathered family of God and in the presence of the One she has always been amazed by – for His rescue and forgiving grace. Jesus.
What good, sweet news.
My Mom was amazing. Right now, in between this moment and that service in a few weeks, I get to be her boy. And that is a good thing…
Marie P. Khandjian – November 1, 1929 – December 26, 2013 – RIP
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” – Psalm 116:15
September 14, 2013 § 4 Comments
“Every night, friends. You have done what you could. Let it go. “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson (via Fred Harrell)
This has been a crazy week in the life of our church Staff. In addition to preparations for worship, tomorrow evening we will share some vision with our church community. We have been in a focused planning mode for weeks, writing, talking, sharing, editing, revising, videoing and praying. So it was good to sneak away with Katherine to a movie last night. The movie was okay, but the company was fantastic.
It would be fair to say that on a practical level I don’t believe Emerson. On any given day my desk is cluttered with books, scriptures, papers, notes, letters, cups, pens, markers, letter openers, pictures, and lots, that is, tons – we’re talking piles and piles of things to do. Maybe that desk is reflective of my head and life, kind of in the way we guys assume it is for women and their purses (but why go there?!).
This morning as I left my office for Starbucks, I reflected on this, and the conclusions were like those personality tests where you feel great when you see your good qualities, and then turn to despair over the negative results. While I have the capacity to get a lot done in a day, there are darker angels that shape my profile, and one of them has to do with an unwillingness to stop.
I don’t want to get too deep here, but there seems to be something terribly idolatrous about an unwillingness to let go of the day. In one sense, we are always unfinished, so to hold on is to galvanize a moment God intended to pass, in taking us to the next. The cost can be immense, and the joy we are intended to experience each new day – with those we love, and even within ourselves, is often squandered in restlessness.
The alternative is to flee to Jesus – to actually stop and believe that His invitation to come to Him with our weariness (Matthew 11:28-30) will relieve us of the impossible burden of finding our value in work, and the other unfinished realities of our lives.
Friends, this is good news we can rest in…